Monday, March 30, 2020

"Gigantosaurus" Review

Switching from among four colorful prehistoric lizards, you scamper through linear levels in "Gigantosaurus" in pursuit of a slew of flashy trinkets. The gameplay is as basic as you can get, but the fundamentals are solid, if unspectacular.

Based on the animated Disney Junior series and Johnny Duddle book, "Gigantosaurus" follows the "Crash Bandicoot" and "Banjo-Kazooie" template for sprinting, collecting and bashing action that never lets up.

The downside is that there's little challenge to the affair. The dev team at Cyber Group Studios understandably prizes accessibility above all else, playing to the show's base while minimizing overtures to parents and older siblings who find themselves pulled along for the ride.

As many as four players can join in the mayhem, taking control of one of the bumbling, stumbling protagonists. There are mild educational themes at play, encouraging qualities such as bravery, inquisitiveness and honor. The endgame is to solve the mystery of the colossal Gigantosaurus, but the joy comes from the ebb and flow of the journey.

Parents may find that "Gigantosaurus" comes at just the right time. Working equally well as a skill-builder and time-killer, the title is a suitable way to blow off some steam and break up the quarantine-spawned malaise. Playing the game beats watching episodes of the show over and over again.

inquisitive Mazu, playful Tiny, timid Bill, and courageous Rocky 

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: 5 Shows to Binge in April 2020

For my full post, click here.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Book Report: "A Passage to India"

A Passage to IndiaA Passage to India by E.M. Forster
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

No single book did more to spark the tide that would turn into Indian independence than "A Passage to India." Its importance as an incisive critique of British imperialism and systematic racism can't be dismissed.

That still doesn't make E.M. Forster's book an easy read.

Choppy and dull while spiced up by occasional dollops of intrigue, the story is a largely shapeless and aimless meandering that stumbles along its stilted path of a morality play that serves as an excuse for a plot.

The best way to appreciate the book is anecdotally, cherishing E.M. Swift's poetic ways of painting scenes of a far off time and land, as well as the characters' distinct tones and cultural backgrounds. If only the book succeeded as much as a captivating tale as it did an anthropological case study.

In the Audible version, Sam Dastor gives a heroic effort to inject some life into the book's many slow moments, but there's only so much a narrator can do to make something so dry palatable.

I'm glad I plowed through "A Passage to India." It made me feel more worldly and expanded my appreciation of the way things were on the other side of the world a century ago. But this is a case in which the destination is more valuable than the journey.

Publisher provided review copy.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

"Bubble Bobble 4 Friends" Review

"Bubble Bobble 4 Friends" gives the "New Super Mario Bros. Wii" treatment to the 1980s and 90s platformer.

With co-op available for up to four players, ININ Games brings back the classic series in chaotic form, with the players aiding and messing with each other in equal measures.

Giggles and elbows abound as you trek through the 100 levels with friends. Collectibles and hidden crannies abound.

There's also a side game at play, tasking you to discover letter bubbles that spell out the word "EXTEND." Find them all, and you'll unlock more facets of the design.

Colorful visuals meld with a catchy, chiptune-style soundtrack to conjure a retro-friendly feel that brings the older games to mind while also pushing the series forward in significant ways.

A satisfying way to bring back a blast from gaming's past, "Bubble Bobble 4 Friends" is a lovingly crafted and invigoratingly breezy way to revisit the adventures of Bub and Bob. 

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, March 20, 2020

"Granblue Fantasy: Versus" Review

Set in a steampunk-influenced world, "Granblue Fantasy: Versus" packs 2D-fighter and side-scrolling brawler aesthetics into one hack-and-slash package.

The characters are diverse and distinguished while also balanced. The lore is engaging and well-conceived. And the visuals tie it all together with verve and panache, luring you into the realm of might, magic and exotic contraptions.

There are three modes in which to test your might. The main RPG mode lets you level your character and advance the story. Versus mode allows you to square off in one-and-done matches against a friend or the PC. And Arcade is a traditional match tree that puts you through the paces against all comers until you either emerge triumphantly or wither away from the challenge and give in.

The game makes the transition from mobile platforms to console with confidence and ease, with developer Arc System Works taking advantage of the additional power and visual fidelity to make the game feel as though it were built from the ground up for the PS4.

Those familiar with Arc's contributions to the likes of "BlazBlue" and "Guilty Gear" will feel right at home in the frenzied yet fair strike-parry-block metagame of mental wrestling.

"Granblue Fantasy: Versus" may not have the name recognition of its predecessors or competitors, but its fresh take on the genre is a welcome departure from the norm. In a time when escapism and empowerment fantasies are more needed than ever, the game came along just when it was needed most.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

"Wunderling" Review

Sick of their kind being stomped on all their lives, one member of the tribe has finally learned to jump. The skill becomes a game-changer in the squad's eternal clash with their arch-villain, Carrot Man.

Out for sweet vengeance, the Wunderlings run amok over the colorful, polygonal platformer landscape, dumping the usual routine on its head.

Developer Retroid has loads of satire-minded fun with the concept, twisting accepted gaming cliches. A goofy and satisfying romp, the game goes beyond its story gimmick by infusing the platforming with solid design and clever twists.

Light puzzle-solving keeps the action from becoming monotonous. Clever writing in the story segments is another incentive to keep hopping.

Wunderlings are sort of the ugly cousin of the Minions or the Little Goombas that Mario has stomped for the last 35 years, and the protagonist's angst-ridden resentment makes them charming antiheroes to get behind.

A winning underdog much like its subject, "Wunderling" is retro-tinged fun for Switch and Steam players alike.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

"Yakuza 0" Xbox One Review

There are worse ways to introduce yourself to the "Yakuza" series than its prequel.

Conceived by developer Ryo ga Gotoku Studios as an entry point into the series, the game does away with the muddled morass of a plot built up over the series and cuts to the origins of the saga.

Set in 1988 Tokyo, the plot follows Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima as they work their way through the gangland underworld, hinting at wild times to come.

Three years after its PS4 release, the game makes its way to the Xbox One, which is unusual territory for the traditionally Sony-exclusive series. The game is also part of the Xbox Game Pass, making for a low-risk barrier to entry for those who are heading into the franchise with hesitance.

A coming of age story packed with emotion, grand plot developments and more than a little silliness, the combat-heavy action-adventure moves through the traditional "Yakuza" light RPG elements while building up its story elements.

"Yakuza 0" may not be the most polished of the series' titles, but it's a well-crafted sampler platter that shows off some of the highlights that the "Yakuza" games have to offer.

Publisher provided review code.

"Persona 5 Royal" Review

Just as developer P Studio gave "Persona 4" a grand victory lap with its "Persona 4: Golden" rerelease, the paradigm-shifting success that was "Persona 5" gets a second go-round with "Persona 5 Royal."

The reboot of the universally-respected masterpiece shines every bit as bright as the first entry, giving veteran players ample reason to revisit the classic while beckoning new players to see how the buzz is justified.

More adventurous, action-packed and somewhat lighter in tone than previous entries, the JRPG tasks you to explore the Tokyo underworld, navigating psychological dramas that sweep through the streets.

You play as a member of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, a band of iconoclast do-gooders that pull off elaborate crimes in order to shame the wealthy and powerful into reformation.

Juggling your secret identity along with your daily school and social life, you tangle with and recruit summonable Personas that can tip the balance of power in battle.

The follow-up to the 2017 game makes for a surprisingly refreshing experience. New characters and story beats add considerable depth and breadth to the story.

You can also sink plenty of hours into the Thieves' Den, which serves as your base of operations and allows you to customize it to your tastes, shaping it into your ever-shifting trophy of your mounting achievements.

Robust and sprawling while never losing its laser forcus on the feverishly written tale, "Persona 5 Royal" is nothing short of a crowning achievement that's well worthy of taking its spot on the throne.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, March 16, 2020

"Sega Ages: Sonic the Hedgehog 2" Review

One of the best assets of the Switch is its tendency to inspire developers to churn out the great games of the past. The "Sonic Ages" banner is at the forefront of this archaeological benefit, mining the pillars on which the Blast Processing brand was built.

"Sonic the Hedgehog 2" is among the most glittery of those rediscovered gems. The fast-moving, inventively designed multi-path levels continue to stand out as examples of riveting design.

The catch music, entertaining boss battles and consistently daunting challenge make for loads of replayability with charm to spare.

The 1992 Sega Genesis classic shook up the formula by adding a competitive two-player mode, letting Sonic and Tails face off in frenzied matches that caused many a couch-set slugfest between siblings.

New features include a time trial with online rankings, as well as new modes that let you start off the game as the yellow-colored alternate form of the hero, as well as Knuckles.

Carrying the momentum from the incomparable original, "Sonic the Hedgehog 2" high-stepped its way into the race with Mario for platformer mascot supremity in days of yore. Future games may have caused the Blue Blur to lose his way, but if you want to see Sonic in his prime, you can't do much better than this one.

Publisher provided review code.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

"Sega Ages: Puyo Puyo 2" Review

The once-obscure "Puyo Puyo" series has been granted a renaissance thanks to the Switch. After the 2017 port of "Puyo Puyo Tetris" comes the latest in the conga line of revamped 1990s Sega originals in the "Sega Ages" lineage.

A quarter-century after release, the simple-yet-satisfying block puzzles retain their charm and appeal. A surprisingly stressful experience, the increasingly frantic frenzy of tile placement inflicts you with the Tetris effect after your close your eyes following long, intense sessions.

A simple reissue of the original game might have been enough to hook you once again, but Sega took welcome measures to plus it up to modern standards.

With two-player online matchups, an online leaderboard and offline quick rewinds, the old standby gets the equivalent of a fresh coat of paint and a new transmission as it hits the road once again.

The years have been kind to the rock-solid structure of the puzzle dynamics in "Puyo Puyo 2," which will probably still be in puzzle gamers' rotations 25 years from now. That's par for the course for the brand, which may as well be renamed "Sega Ageless."

Publisher provided review code.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

"3000th Duel" Review

A sleek and penetrating takeoff on the Metroidvania dynamic, "3000th Duel" places exploration and dynamic backtracking at the forefront. Combining smart, suspenseful storytelling with inventive combat and puzzle-solving, the game is a treat for Switch owners looking for a rich and powerful new obsession.

Placing a fresh twist on the insomniac hero setup, "3000th Duel" tells a stylish story with urgency and a deepening sense of mystery. As your mask-wearing character explores the oblique world, he learns haunting facts about his past that shifts his motives and endgame into question.

Developer Neopopcorn Corp crafts a visually bold tale that tugs you along by the shirt collar.

Battles, in particular, make for a rewarding sense of accomplishment. Timing and strategy are key, with enemies testing your sense of adaptability as you scrap for survival. Action rises to the forefront, and your character's rising sense of power and control is intoxicating.

If you find yourself more cooped up than usual in these days of social distancing, "3000th Duel" can be a welcome part of your entertainment rotation. It's well-crafted enough to cleanse your memory of your other Metroidvania successes.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, March 13, 2020

BOOK REPORT: "1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed"

1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H. Cline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An academic treatise with a sexy title and premise, Eric H. Cline's book is more of an extended research paper than a cohesive narrative.

Although packed with intriguing historical detail, Cline is so determined to stay true to proven historical documentation that he is hardly willing to add any opinion or interpretation to fill out his premise. The result is an unfulfilling, footnote-driven rundown of various debates between historians that can never be decisively settled due to lack of supporting evidence.

A better book would have used the research as a jumping off point, then infused some imagination to explain why it was that the first interconnected, globalized economy came to a sudden halt.

Oddly, given our coronavirus-plagued times, disease is never mentioned as a possible catalyst for the fall of the various empires. Instead, Cline speculates that earthquakes or invasions from unidentified "Sea Peoples" -- who could also have been victims of the same globalized cataclysm -- may have sparked the catastrophe.

In the Audible version, narrator Andy Caploe injects a little verve into the otherwise dry read, infusing the words with history-nerd passion that emphasizes some of the more intriguing nuggets that Cline digs up.

Still, the book is worth a read due to its magnificent premise -- an ancient history world that largely echoes our current state in terms of commerce, trade, grudges and interdependence. The chilling lesson, though not without its redemptive Darwinian qualities, is that a global economy is a house of cards prone to rapidly-spreading destruction.

Publisher provided review copy.

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Thursday, March 12, 2020

PHIL ON FILM: "I Still Believe"

For my full review, click here.

"MLB The Show 20" Review

Of all the traditions that launch a new baseball season, booting up the new "MLB The Show" game is maybe the one that induces the most chills. It's a way to peak through the blinders of Spring Training into the season, with freshly stacked rosters beckoning hope to even the lowliest of teams.

If "MLB The Show 20" were an MLB team, it would be the Dodgers -- stacked with a ludicrous amount of talent and ability, albeit with a few questions of whether it will all pull together as a cohesive whole.

Like all annual sports releases, the wear and tear of the long season will be the true test of the title's mettle -- with on-the-fly updates and server integrity needed to prove its worth as an evolving service. It's hard to ask for a more promising leadoff showing, though.

The 15th edition of the game, and final PlayStation exclusive edition before it goes multiplatform next year, continues the franchise's confident dominance on the basepath.

Crisp visuals combine with surprisingly incisive and occasionally cruel commentary to make up a well-rounded presentation that matches the feel you get on broadcast and streaming. Animations are meticulous and convincing, but don't take away from the speed and urgency of the gameplay, which flows at a hectic, no-nonsense speed to which the real-life game can only aspire.

Nearly every legacy mode got a significant upgrade. Road to the Show, in which you play as a Minor Leaguer working your way up through the farm system, has more of an RPG feel.
Diamond Dynasty -- the game's answer to EA's fantasy, card-based team-building "Ultimate Team" obsession -- gets a more exhaustive range of players and a plethora of ways to tweak and upgrade your squad.

The most intriguing addition is March to October, in which you watch your team's progress from afar, stepping in at decisive moments to alter your team's fate.

Whether "MLB The Show 20" goes down as one of the greats or makes a promising start only to fade like so many Arizona Diamondbacks remains to be seen, but hope and excitement loom as large for the new game as it does for the season itself.

Publisher provided review code.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

"Nioh 2" Review

Beating the likes of "Dark Souls" at its own game is no easy feat, but the "Nioh" games are more than up to the task. The PS4 exclusives deliver an ethereal though grounded style all their own, finding clever ways to spark excitement, satisfaction and even joy amid the hellish challenge.

"Nioh 2," the follow-up to the revered 2017 Souls-like adventure, gathers much of what the original such a standout, while branching out in refreshing and often daring ways.

The dev squad at Team Ninja delves into the 1555 Sengoku period of Japan, crafting a supernatural-tinged journey into the metaphysical.

As a half-human, half supernatural Yokai warrior, the burden falls on you to combat sinister forces by drawing on an otherworldly summon. By alternating between corporeal and beast form, you adapt to the offensive and defensive needs of the task at hand.

Opportunities to upgrade are numerous, but to thrive you need to take a calculated approach to strive toward the build you desire, adapting your skills and upgrades to a cohesive vision.

Haunting visuals couple with a subtly unnerving soundtrack to pitch a sense of dread over the proceedings. Veterans of Souls-style games, including "Bloodborne," will understand the basics, but will find plenty of surprises and wrinkles that make "Nioh 2" more of a trailblazer in the subgenre than a follower.

Raising its fist to the skies in defiance, "Nioh 2" is a brash and combustive. The game makes you work for every inch of progress, thrilling you all the while. Those who were obsessed with the first "Nioh" have hardly seen anything yet.

Publisher provided review code.

Friday, March 06, 2020

"Bloodroots" Review

Proudly wearing a Haggar the Horrible-like animation style on its ragged sleeves, "Bloodroots" is a wallop-packing action romp that thrives on an "Itchy & Scratchy"-style of exaggerated hyperviolence.

"Bloodroots" takes the Jackie Chan approached to combat. Scrounging for environmental items you can weaponize in combo-loaded melees, you ramble across the map in pursuit of creative implements.

Anything from vegetation to household goods can be picked up and wielded at surrounding opponents.

Playing as the vengeful  Mr. Wolf, you make your way through the Weird West, a dilapidated yet bubbly lawless outpost that serves as a stomping ground for your melees.

Developer Paper Cult infuses attitude and amplitude in its storytelling, crafting a riotous, anything-goes wonderland of fisticuffs.

Peppy writing and the entrancing visuals combine to conjure a captivating feel. Oozing with personality and outrageous humor, "Bloodroots" is an eclectic and energetic romp that never wears out its welcome. It's combustive and creative down to its very roots.

Publisher provided review code.

Thursday, March 05, 2020

PHIL ON FILM: "Onward"

For my full review, click here.

Book Report: The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World

The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the WorldThe Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months That Changed the World by A.J. Baime
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The tale of the rise of Harry Truman is a uniquely American fable, and wouldn't be believable had it been written as fiction and not come to pass.

Truman's ascent from mediocrity to the role of the most powerful man in the free world is Arthurian in its serendipitous momentum. He was a middle-aged, broke businessman thrust into a lowly county office as a political pawn of a corrupt businessman.

That led to his being hand-picked as a patsy placeholder to run for Senate, where he caught the eye of party power players who maneuvered him into position as an afterthought vice president to FDR. After his sudden passing, Truman found himself in the driver's seat of America's World War II apparatus, which eventually tasked him with the impossible A-bomb decision that would forever define his legacy and set the course for the free world.

A.J. Baime tells Truman's story with a Dickensian spirit, making the reader feel as though they're breathlessly tagging along on an impossibly lucky journey through history.

Along the way, Truman shines as a saintly figure who maintains his relatability through self-deprecation. His calm confidence owes to his moral fortitude rather than any airs of greatness.

Tony Messano's narration in the Audible version strikes the appropriate tone, delivering a relentlessly upbeat and energetic take on the prose.

The book is a shining lesson of the pitfalls of elitism, and the trouble with underestimating someone perceived as common and unexceptional. What a world we live in, that a man like Harry Truman could start from the bottom and ascend to the most dizzying heights. And what a blessing for the Western world it was that he managed to handle the heady burdens which such collected wisdom and grace.

Publisher provided review copy.

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Wednesday, March 04, 2020

"MathLand" Review

"MathLand" is so earnest and straightforward that you can't help but look at it sideways. Is there something ironic going on here? Where is the twist?

You can stop squinting and searching. There is nothing more to "MathLand" than math itself. A purely educational experience, the game is a sneaky way to get kids -- as well as rusty adults, for that matter -- to drill and kill arithmetic until it becomes second nature.

The $6 download is a throwback to such elementary school computer lab classics as "Math Blaster." Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are all there to help you hone your skills as you make your way through isometric levels.

The slate of minigames tasks you to select correct answers, rewarding you for your speed and accuracy. Developer Artax Games could have gotten cute by instituting touch-screen number drawing in the vein of "Brain Age" or "Professor Layton," but the multiple-choice approach is the most clean and effective.

While lazy players can guess their way to success, the only sure path to victory is to memorize and apply number skills. That's life in "MathLand," as straightforward and methodical as can be.

Publisher provided review code.

Monday, March 02, 2020

"Yakuza Remastered Collection" Review

The release of "Yakuza Remastered Collection" is an excuse to dive into the core games of the sprawling Japanese gangland opus.

The anthology contains three previously released games, with a minor visual update and a few quality-of-life upgrades thrown in to freshen things up.

The third, fourth and fifth numbered entries of the franchise -- previously available only on the PS3 -- are included, each spinning a lengthy and sidequest-packed journey into the depths of the underworld. Beneath the hardboiled surface of each game bubbles a decidedly goofy and whimsical interior.

Minigames include rhythm-based button-tapping karaoke, exercise, dance and arcade pastimes. Those flourishes are more than just ways in which to blow off steam. They insinuate you into the characterization and culture of the society, immersing you into the sights and sounds of big city excess.

All the games run in 1080p and 60fps. Even more appealingly, they reduce some of the painful loading times and chugging prevalent in previous-gen games. A touched-up translation and addition of missing story moments from past games also makes the collection the most polished versions of the games to date.

You're best off taking on the games in order, due to the evolution in gameplay and storytelling that continued into the landmark 2016 release of "Yakuza 6."

Now the entire "Yakuza" storyline can be fully consumed on the PS4, completionists can finally put their PS3s to rest. This is the way the "Yakuza" games were meant to be appreciated.

Publisher provided review code.

PHIL ON FILM: 5 Shows to Binge in March 2020

For my full story, click here.

Sunday, March 01, 2020

"Dreams" Review

The game-making genre has always aspired to the vision that anyone on their couch could bring their idea to life and use it to reach the masses. Drawbacks in technology, interface and scale have always stopped entries short of that ideal.

But now comes the staggeringly innovative "Dreams," a boundary-shattering delight that lives up to its name by venturing closer than anything that's come before to the long-sought ideal.

Developer Media Molecule expands on the Play/Create/Share philosophy it has built over the last 12 years in the "LittleBigPlanet" series, launching its ambition to stratospheric proportions. Using a tutorial thinly disguised as a campaign to roll out its myriad toolsets, the title makes you feel comfortable with manipulating the code it takes to construct just about any category you can envision.

It also takes a crucial step beyond that landmark by managing to make game creation appealing to those who may otherwise be disinterested. Theoretically, the release of "Dreams" could mark as a turning point for game development, demolishing class and social structures that have restrained the field's diversity and opening up the art form to the visions of the masses.

While only time will tell if "Dreams" ascends to such heights, it's already apparent that it's allowed current players to crank out a staggering amount of eye-poppingly brilliant creations. While later "LittleBigPlanet" games did allow the cleverest players to branch out into other fields, the series was always pretty much a platformer builder, with little more reach than "Mario Maker" games.

"Dreams," though, frees players from such shackles, granting and encouraging freedom of creative vision without any apparent impediments. Through ease of use and expertise in design, it achieves the paradigm sought for by the likes of "Project Spark."

When I started the game with my children, I marveled at the way my 13-year-old and 7-year-old jerked the controller out of my hands to indulge the ideas that were bursting out of their minds. There are few games that are capable of engaging all three of us at our varied levels of experiences, and fewer still that can make us feel equally empowered. The fact that "Dreams" accomplished the goal with ease is hardly short of miraculous.

When you play "Dreams," you get more than what you put into it. The power it grants you is intoxicating, and also just a gleeful. It makes children feel as capable of adults, and adults feel as unencumbered as children. To take the controller is to live the dream.

 Publisher provided review code.